No wonder children love the Book of Jonah. The story is packed full of impres- sive visuals. Jonah being thrown overboard in a raging storm, sinking to the bottom of the ocean and then being swallowed by a whale that vomits him out onto dry land. To young people it is an adventure tale. For the mature mind, however, the book is a challenge, compelling the reader to search for deeper messages hidden below the surface. Today we will focus on Jonah himself and draw lessons from his behavior.
“The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai, saying, ‘Go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before Me.’ ” The call from God to one of His prophets is a common occurrence in the Old Testament, but the blatant disobedience shown by His servant here is unique. Whatever the reason, be it fear or resentment, or perhaps the feeling that he knew better than the Almighty, Jonah’s response was to board a ship and sail in the opposite direction. ‘How strange,’ we say. ‘How could any hu- man being think he could possibly run away from the omnipotent God?’ But herein lies the lesson.
God has sent us a message in His Bible, and from its pages we learn that He has called us to serve Him by preaching to sinners. Are we not guilty of running away at times? God has reached out and touched our lives in many ways. Maybe we are given the opportunity to shine as a light in the missionary field, only to find ourselves ‘hiding’ behind the many reasons as to why it is ‘impossible’ for us to go. God tries to craft our character through trials and difficulties. We resist and back away instead of meeting those trials squarely and praying for strength to work through them.
Jonah was fully aware of his intentions. Sometimes this is the way with us; we deliberately refuse to do the Lord’s will. Being masters of self-deception, we convince ourselves that various thoughts and actions are acceptable, even though they fall well below the standards of Christ.
So when the Lord calls, it is foolish to run away. It may seem the safest course, but In the long run it is much easier to obey than to wait for the ‘whale’ to swallow us!
Thankful for problems
Of course, it is highly unlikely that a huge sea creature will swallow us whole. What is more likely is that, after we have resolved one problem, we will become enveloped in an even bigger one. In the vernacular, this is called jumping from the frying pan into the fire. This is precisely what happened to Jonah; he was saved from drowning and then swallowed by a whale. Incredibly, he uttered
a prayer of thanks from the dark, dank and smelly stomach of the fish. Being honest, how many us could give thanks in such dire circumstances?
Looking at things from a modern perspective, are we thankful for the every- day difficulties to which we are subject, recognizing that they may be trials necessary for our development? According to the apostle Paul we should be thankful: “And you have forgotten that word of encouragement that addresses you as sons: ‘My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son.’ Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father? If you are not disciplined (and everyone undergoes discipline), then you are not true sons…” (Heb. 12:5-8).
Deep beneath the sea in the belly of a whale, Jonah recognized divine chasten- ing. Although his present circumstances were intolerable, he had been saved from certain death by the mercy of the Lord: “In my distress I called to the Lord, and he answered me… you brought me up from the pit, O Lord my God. When my life was ebbing away, I remembered you, Lord, and my prayer rose to you, to your holy temple” (Jon. 2:2,7). His faith in God’s plan of salvation and the final deliverance from death is evident in his prayer of praise and thanks: “With a song of thanksgiving, I will sacrifice to you. What I have vowed I will make good. Salvation comes from the Lord” (v. 9). The response of the Lord God to this declaration of faith and hope was: “The Lord commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land” (v. 10).
Would that we could be thankful for the discipline of problems and trials and look beyond them to praise and thank God for His promise of salvation.
An obvious lesson
Before we leave this section of the book, we should not miss an obvious lesson: “Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time… Jonah obeyed the word of the Lord and went to Nineveh” (Jon. 3:1-3). Had Jonah obeyed God’s command the first time, he would have avoided a great deal of aggravation and suffering. In fact the first two chapters would have been superfluous. In the wonderful wisdom of God they were written for our learning. Therefore let us take heed and attempt to be obedient to the Lord’s direction the first time around!
The outcome of Jonah’s reluctant preaching was the repentance of the wicked people of Nineveh. What is even more surprising is that the prophet’s reaction was one of extreme anger. Apparently he had anticipated that God’s mercy and longsuffering would extend to the Assyrians: “Oh Lord, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That this is why I was so quick to flee to Tarsh- ish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, O Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live” (Jon. 4:1-3).
There have been many suggestions regarding this extreme reaction of Jonah but whatever the cause, God gently challenged the prophet to re-evaluate it: “Have you any right to be angry?” (v. 4).
Jonah’s reply is not recorded. He went to a place east of the city to watch and await results. Judging from his continued testiness, the inner turmoil had not been resolved. He became angry at the destruction of a plant that God had kindly provided to replace the ineffective shelter that he had made himself: “Then God said to Jonah, ‘Do you have a right to be angry about the vine?’ ” Again came the petulant reply: “It is right for me to be angry, even to death!” (v. 9).
Comparing ourselves with Jonah
On the surface, Jonah’s reaction seems childish, shortsighted and selfish. Are we any different? When things don’t happen quite the way we want, we get annoyed. Whether large or small things, either way, we get riled up and go and sit in our respective corners — just like Jonah.
Sometimes we need to step back and look at the bigger picture. Jonah’s comfort level didn’t really matter; there was a much more vital issue to consider: “But the Lord said, ‘You have been concerned about this vine, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. But Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city?’ ” (Jon. 4:10,11).
Often, we are so distracted by the drying up of our own little ‘vine’, and the discomfort of our immediate situation, that we fail to see the more important and serious issues that should concern us. Ideally we should pray for guidance to learn discernment and the ability to refocus our energy in the areas of greater need.
Whether or not Jonah got the point is not clear, because the book ends somewhat abruptly. However, the lesson of the vine was much more subtle than that of the whale, and God was very direct with Jonah in His last speech. Given Jonah’s propensity to recognize his mistakes, one is left with the distinct impression that Jonah would respond positively at the next opportunity.
So ends our consideration of the man Jonah. Hopefully we have seen some of the lessons that he can provide for us. I know that many of the examples hit home for me. Jonah was an ‘Everyman’; we can all see a little of ourselves in him. Like us he reacted unwisely, especially when under the stress of trials and testing. The uplifting thing is that the Lord God treated His prophet with mercy and compassion. The Lord is unchanging and when we fail and repent, these same attributes are extended to us. Evidence of His plan of salvation is here before us on the table. Let us partake of the bread and wine with thankfulness and praise.
Adam Booker (Austin South, TX)